Resistance Is Power: How I Fought For My Religious Freedom
He ran toward me and pounded my shoulders with his fists. He slapped, kicked and yelled at me. “What is your problem?” he screamed. “You have to leave that church!”
This was my father, physically assaulting me. Intense pain transcended my physical body to my spirit, back to my body and my spirit again. I ran to my bedroom and sat on the bed, angry tears rushing from my eyes.
Two paternal uncles and aunts followed me into my room, with my father close on their heels. Their voices rang in my ears like a chorus, singing a song I’d been hearing for months. They shut the door behind them and continued shouting at me. I sat on my bed in silence, like someone who has forgotten how to talk. Tears continued to pour from my eyes as if a faucet was left on.
They were violent, adamant, uncompromising. I was to abide by their commands or there will be war. Their individual sermons all culminated into one statement:
“You will worship where we want, not where you want!”
Allowing people worship where they want is an issue that has been given some attention in my country. Cameroon hosted the International Religious Liberty Association annual congress that ran from August 7th-10th 2013 in the nation’s capital, Yaounde. The conference stressed the need for religious intolerance to be eliminated. The president was represented by the Prime Minister, Philemon Yang, which shows that more eyebrows are being raised on the issue.
The International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 presented by the U.S department of state describes how human beings’ fundamental right to religious freedom was challenged in many ways in 2012. The report documents that members of various religious minorities were attacked by fellow citizens in various countries in the world.
Although Cameroon is not mentioned, I experienced such an attack because I chose to attend an unpopular church. The three heavily attended churches in Cameroon are the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist. Most of the Cameroonian populace sees any denomination outside of the trio to be a “sect.”
My personal struggle for religious freedom dates back to 2004 when as an undergraduate, I chose to leave the Presbyterian Church where my parents still worshipped, and attend Word Eternity Ministries International. I feared the reaction of my parents. However, I knew this decision was right for me. My family’s church no longer fed my spirit. I was hungry for more. This hunger kept me searching and finally led me to a new religious experience.
As expected, a tug of war ensued when my parents discovered that I swapped their denomination for this more charismatic one. I was made to spend hours on my feet listening to them deliver sermons to me on why the church was not the best for me, blah blah blah. I did not change my mind.
My father threatened to disown me and indeed followed through on this more than once. I held on to my faith. He called me a thorn in his flesh. My mum said my new church was a place for frustrated people. On this fateful day, my parents were determined to force me to abide to their choice. So they invited extended family members to strengthen their command. After much talking, I refused to succumb.
Finally, one aunt grabbed a wrapper that was lying on a small couch by me and tied it on her waist. In Cameroon, when a woman does that, it means she is ready to fight. They promised to rain fire and brimstone on my chosen church. When they rushed out I sat there wondering what they could be up to, playing imaginary scenes in my head of the showdown in church.
My struggle resembles that of many women in Cameroon who choose to worship differently than their families. According to a paper presented to the International Conference on Population in 2009, violence against women and girls remains widespread in Cameroon and Central African Region despite the many national and international efforts to stop them.
Women’s freedom of worship is seldom discussed, and it is time for that to change.
The preamble of the Constitution of Cameroon states that, “human beings, without distinction of race, religion, belief, possess inalienable and sacred rights.” Yet women are denied such rights when it comes to religion.
Deprivation of my own basic rights along with the pressure leave my chosen church, took its toll on me. When I did attend my church, I shivered all the way home at the imminent wrath of my parents. Home was no longer home. It had become a sort of hell.
So I did something that shocked everyone, considering the shy and reserved person I was. I left my parents’ home, without telling anyone my destination. I needed to find myself. It was this unexpected journey that knocked some sense into my father’s head. He phoned and begged me to return home. He promised to allow me to worship where I will.
My father’s call prompted me to return home. Still I was allowed no peace. My mother thought a spell had been cast on me. She could not understand why I felt so adamant about attending this different church. So she took me to see her pastors twice for counseling. The men tried to convince me but I refused to be swayed.
Why did I have to struggle so hard for freedom to worship as I pleased? Because I am a woman and my parents thought I could be easily twisted to obey them.
The International Women’s Rights Action Watch report, submitted in May 1999 on the status of women in Cameroon, reveals that, “the unequal status of women and girls in Cameroon manifests itself in all spheres of life.”
I have seen my two younger brothers make decisions my parents did not approve of too. Yet they have never faced the kind of opposition I received.
The huge proliferation of churches in Cameroon recently prompted the government to shut down any churches that lack legal authorization to operate. The Cameroonian government recognizes the existence of 47 churches. However, about 300 churches are reported to be in existence.
Ministers of these smaller churches say they have solicited for authorization from the government but the delay seems unending.
Pastor Sylvia Kien of Christ Embassy, Kumba, Cameroon says the head minister of her church has compiled every needed document to obtain a license. The documents have been pushed on to a point where just the president’s signature is needed for the church to operate legally. Yet no authorization has been given.
Unauthorized churches are new, strange, and considered unwanted. Most parents or spouses to think their daughters or wives are making a fatal mistake when they worship in certain churches. I remember how my mother always made a mockery of my church whenever I mentioned the name.
As to why women are the most suppressed when it comes to freedom of worship, Pastor Kien notes that “A woman will always have a head over her. Female brethren are either under their parents or under their husbands. Men do not answer to anyone but the woman answers to somebody”
This is the prevailing opinion in Cameroon where a woman is believed to be under the man. Although a grown-up woman, I was still under my parents and I had to abide by their decisions.
The clergy woman tells me that she has faced her own bouts of disapproval as a female pastor in a society where the clergy is dominated by men.
“There are those who have come to church for the first time and on discovering that the pastor is a lady, they never came back,” she says. “However, some after they have being in church and have grown testify that they never believed they could experience such growth under a female Pastor.”
Pastor James Isayode of the Redeemed Christian Church of God notes that he has seen uncountable cases in which female church members are persecuted.
“I remember one woman who got married. Before her marriage, she was born again. After the wedding, her husband stopped her from coming to church. Before then he had told her she could go to her church but after the wedding, he changed his mind,” he recalls.
Pastor James was eager to narrate the most recent case of religious battle he witnessed. “A sister invited another woman to church. When this woman came to church, the sister who invited her noticed that she did not have enough presentable clothes to wear,” he says. “So she gifted her some of her used clothes. When the woman’s husband discovered that she now had new clothes, he became suspicious and angry. He mobilized people and the woman that took his wife to church and other church members were beaten”
These stories are just two examples of what pastors of Pentecostal churches go through in this part of the world. My own pastor was physically threatened by my family.
Women in many parts of the word routinely suffer psychological and physical attacks when they challenge their family’s religious beliefs by choosing to worship at a different church.
A report submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council in April 2009 sums it up; “Compatibility between certain individual rights, including freedom to practice a religion or faith or to observe rites, and women’s fundamental rights as universal rights poses a major problem.”
Although laws have been enacted to end this type of injustice, it persists in everyday life in my country and many others. The Cameroon law has a special section called the Law of Freedom of Association which states that people can create associations, including churches as they will.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in article 18 lists freedom of religion as a fundamental human right. It even explains the freedom to discontinue membership in a religion or religious group as an important part of religious freedom.
Yet women and girls still suffer a lot of oppression when they choose to worship in churches their parents or spouses do not approve of.
Women, know your rights! If you do not know your rights, you will be trampled upon again and again.
We must stand together and demand that the government make it easier for new churches to acquire a license.
We stand for what we believe in, even in the face of family disagreement. If I did not stand for my faith, my life would have taken a completely different course and I would not even have the opportunity to be writing this today. It is important to stand firm, no matter the hostility of parents and spouses.
Freedom of worship is just one of the many areas in which women are oppressed in Cameroon. Men want to dictate everything: What women should wear, where they should go, how they should use their time, what they should believe in, how they should spend their money, the list is endless. It is time to challenge these stereotypes as this will be a powerful contribution to the global women’s empowerment movement.
After battling for my spiritual convictions, my family has grown to love and accept me the way I am. If I did not fight, I would still be remote controlled by them on how to live. Winning the battle has helped me gain autonomy as a woman.
As I pen off, I recall Pamela, a fellow sister at my student fellowship whose parents disowned her because of her faith. She had no school fees but she stood firm. I remember Christine who faced constant violence due to her faith. Yet she did not give up.
Fighting for your rights pays off. It can turn vulnerability into freedom.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.